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The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

1 rating: 4.0
A book by Ali Soufen.

A book that will change the way we think about al-Qaeda, intelligence, and the events that forever changed America. On September 11, 2001, FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan was handed a secret file. Had he received it months earlier—when it was … see full wiki

1 review about The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11...

THE BLACK BANNERS Reveals Not Everything Is Black-and-White

  • Sep 18, 2011
Rating:
+4
I’ve made it a point to never pen a review immediately after finishing a book.  I do this because, as a critic, I don’t want to feel as if I’m unintentionally overrating or underrating any author’s effort.  I try to let the work sink in a bit, to have it seep through all the corners of my brain, to soak it across all my consciousness.  I do this in hopes that I’ll give a more cogent, a more salient, and a more respectful analysis of the work.  The longer I allowed Ali Soufen’s “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda” to float around in my head, the more frustrated I grew … frustrated with the tale … frustrated with the participants … and even frustrated a bit with the author.
 
For starters, it’s a tremendous and personal work.  Clocking in at just over 600 pages, it’s a wealth of history about al-Qaida and the terrorist organization’s various major (and a few minor) players.  And, as Mr. Soufen repeatedly suggests to those around him, “it all starts back in 1979 when …”  He provides outstanding context for the background, and he allows the story to build reasonably from there.  Consequently, the book is a comprehensive accounting of names, dates, and places, and, no doubt, it’s penned by one committed and impressive mind that have synthesized a vast canvass of data into the effective conclusions that our narrator does.  In his bid to tell the definitive insider’s story of 9/11, Mr. Soufen clearly is the best-educated, best-prepared, and best-suited to enlighten all of us with where the mindset of such an act began, and the first half of his book goes to great pains to bring the reader up-to-speed on how a few decades of history climaxed with that seminal moment: the destruction of the two World Trade Center towers.
 
For the reader, it’s an at times frustrating experience in all of its 600 pages.  This isn’t intended as a slight toward Mr. Soufen – I think the very nature of exploring these events and the people who caused them strays into territory where some may fear to tread – but there may have been a better person to tell this story so that so much of it didn’t appear so personal to him.  Immersing oneself inside the story, by its very nature, brings the narrator to life, and that drags all the good, the bad, and the ugly into the spotlight and places it alongside the bad guys here.  Whether he intended it this way or not, Soufen became the focus (for this reader, anyway) at key points in the narrative; as the story went on, I found myself mildly less-and-less interested in the war and more drawn to the narrator, in not a good way.
 
For example, Soufen almost lovingly (and dangerously) narrates the backstory of al-Qaida’s leadership, exploring the men’s history, hopes, and dreams, underscoring to the reader that, perhaps at some point in their past, they were not different from you or I … and, well, yes, I suppose that’s true except for that whole little ‘jihad to bring down Western civilization,’ that is.  In his bid to extract information as a lead interrogator, Soufen laughs with them; he cries with them; and he even prays with them … so long as it will get them one step closer to sharing intel and a confession to aid the United States in stopping al-Qaida’s mission of destruction.  And, just maybe, therein rests the only real problem I had with the book: Ali Soufen and his ‘band of Untouchables’ can do no wrong here.  Indeed, Soufen’s own actions take on almost mythic proportions as he almost singlehandedly saves himself and his partners from increasingly treacherous circumstances as the narrative builds.  Only he can get the terrorists to talk.  Only he can bridge the gap between the United States and the Yemeni soldiers surrounding his plane upon arrival to question suspects in the USS Cole bombing.
 
It would seem to me (maybe I’m wrong) that, if Soufen were truly surrounded by intelligent, experienced interrogators, then much of what he narrates as having gone wrong couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t have gone wrong.  After all, would experienced interrogators really make so many blunders when anyone watching a full season of NYPD BLUE knows you can’t treat a suspect like that and get a useful confession?  Most of the interrogations errors explored here seemed really elementary – we’re talking “Interrogation 101” here, folks – and I found myself growing increasingly skeptical with the level of ineptness portrayed by every single agency except Soufen’s FBI.  I’m not saying that all of this sad expose didn’t happen the way Soufen says it did; I’m only saying I found it increasingly hard to believe that there were this many bumbling fools at the head of so much bureaucracy.  (Maybe it’s best that I don’t work in government!)
 
Still, the book breaks narrative not long after 9/11 happens as Soufen recounts a series of bizarre interrogations that he may or may not have participated in.  The book is unclear; from the author’s note, we learn that much of this account was censored by the CIA.  Soufen needed to keep his publication date, so he instead opted to publish the work with the requested excised words being blacked out.  The end result makes the sequence seem unintentionally dramatic if not downright cinematic.  Imagine the movie SAW if it was written by Tom Clancy, and you get the drift.  It’s downright surreal at a point when the reader probably didn’t need that.
 
To his credit, Soufen manages 99.9% of the time to keep this politically-charged story largely apolitical, and, for that alone, I’m immeasurably grateful.  I kept waiting for the book to turn into either a “bash Clinton” or a “bash Bush” or a “bash America” slugfest, and the author took great strides to avoid politicizing much of what could’ve easily been co-opted by any ideological agenda.  In fact, one could make a strong case for the fact that – if there’s any real corruption here – it’s in institutional corruption, demonstrated by the various turf wars intelligence agencies engage in frequently.  Though Soufen soundly comes down in support of his agency (the FBI), that’s a forgivable assumption (not conclusion) given the evidence presented here and the fact that it’s largely from one perspective (Soufen’s).  If there’s any indictment here, it’s probably that bureaucracies are bad – certainly not healthy arbiters of ‘best practices’ when military contractors are involved – and that’s a very safe argument anyone can embrace.  He’s clearly against enhanced interrogation procedures as his work demonstrates precisely how counterproductive they can be to the stated objectives, and he’s entitled to his opinion as the evidence shows.
THE BLACK BANNERS Reveals Not Everything Is Black-and-White

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February 18, 2012
Once we fully withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, this organization and its counterparts should fade in influence.
February 19, 2012
R - i - g - h - t. Lemmeknow when you join reality.
February 19, 2012
Our very presence encourages the resistance. Without our presence, the resistance will be much lower. There are also cheaper ways to stay engaged without spending trillions of dollars and bankrupting our governmental institutions- that is the reality. To pay for World War II, President Roosevelt taxed ( and obviously got passed) the taxation of income over $25T to the tune of 90%. That's how World War II was paid for in full.
February 19, 2012
Yeah, I can appreciate talking points as well as the next schlub, but, as I said, lemmeknow when you join reality. For the record, these folks have hated Western civilization for y-e-a-r-s. Why not actually read the book and get yourself a better understanding? It might do you some good.
February 19, 2012
I'll take a look at the book if I see it in a local library. The facts are that every man, woman and child owes $40,000 to pay off the current debt load. We simply must find ways to engage the Islamic culture more effectively. This does not necessarily mean more defense appropriations.


It could mean utilizing commando forces instead of troops, utilizing drones and other mechanical/electrical modalities more efficiently and utilizing soft power more often and more effectively. I'd like to avoid a situation where we rout Al Qaeda from the face of the earth and have a social situation here similar to the one in Greece.


So far, we have managed to keep relative civil order in this country despite the Great Recession. I don't know how much longer that can last.
February 19, 2012
??? Dude, again, you need to get your facts straight, or, in the very least, stop mixing your arguments from taxes to ideology. As anyone can establish for you, these "rebels" have hated Western civilization as long as its been on the map. Our presence there is not making them hate us any more nor any less than they already do. And our presence there is NOT creating ANY civil order. There's no 'engaging' our mortal enemies. You see what putting NASA in charge of outreach did for us, right? Got its budget slashed. We're well on the course to become Greece 2, so you'd best settle in. Get real. You keep putting charlatans (from any political perspective) in the White House, and this is little more than we deserve.
February 19, 2012
We can't and shouldn't spend the US Treasury on internal civil strife in foreign domains. Machiavelli's initial principles of war admit that an occupier can stay only as long as the local people welcome the force. Herein is the dilemma.


In addition, there are historical differences within Islam that must resolve. Sh'ia Muslims believe that G-d has the sole discretion to appoint Muhammad's successor. They believe that G-d chose Ali who was Muhammad's first cousin and the fourth Muslim caliph. Sunnis assert that Muhammad never appointed a successor. Abu Bakr was elected to be the first caliph by the Muslims. The Sunnis recognize the first four caliphs as Muhammad's rightful heirs.


Sunni schools teach that Shiites aren't real Muslims. Sh'ias don't have government representation, per se . They can't enter the judiciary . In Saudi Arabia, Sh'ias and Sunni can't marry. For centuries, the Sh'ia have been impoverished.


Numerically, Iran has the most Shia perhaps 65 million or more. Leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia believe that the Sunni-Sh'ia tensions are on the rise and in fact may be on a collision course with history.


Al Qaeda is a group functioning against this backdrop of a historical collision course within the Muslim community itself. Sooner or later,  Al Qaeda will wane in its influence leaving the Sunni and Sh'ia conflict to reach a critical mass. The differences between Sunny and Sh'ia will resolve one way or another by way of the historical collision which has been in the making for decades. Simply put, the USA cannot referee internal Civil Wars or irreconcilable differences in religious philosophy.
 
September 20, 2011
Wow...600 pages?!? I don't know how much I agree or any other American would be willing to agree that Al Qaeda used to be just like "you or I". It's an impossible comparison, since the two cultures don't share the same culture, government, religion (for the most part), etc. I would also find any kind of self-indulgent praise incredibly annoying. I'm glad that it didn't turn into a polarizing political attack and I'm sure that there were some interesting points but, from your review, it sounds like it could've been done in a much better fashion or even a better author. Did he have a ghostwriter or was this all him?
September 21, 2011
He had a ghostwriter work with him, according to a portion of the text, but it's an uncredited contribution.
September 21, 2011
Wow, you'd think if he had a ghostwriter, it would've been better lol.
 
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